October 9, 2019

In Pictures: The dancing prisoners of Burkina Faso

When dancer and choreographer Aguibou Bougobali Sanou (centre front) was a baby, his mother would carry him on her back, moving her body to soothe him when he cried. He believes this was when he learned to dance. [Jacob Bonkian Londry/Al Jazeera]

When dancer and choreographer Aguibou Bougobali Sanou (centre front) was a baby, his mother would carry him on her back, moving her body to soothe him when he cried. He believes this was when he learned to dance.

Aguibou Bougobali Sanou, or Bouba as he is commonly known, understands the healing power of dance. He has experienced it first-hand.

That is why the dancer and choreographer has taken his skills inside Burkina Faso’s overcrowded Bobo Dioulasso prison, where he is teaching a group of inmates to express their emotions, confront their pasts and embrace their futures through dance.

He wants to give them something that is often in short supply in the prison’s overcrowded cells: Hope.

Among the prisoners are men who have been accused or convicted of a range of crimes – from theft and handling stolen property to rape and murder.

Some of them have been sentenced to life in prison, the death penalty having been abolished in Burkina Faso in 2018. Others are awaiting trial, their case files lost somewhere in the country’s overwhelmed judicial system.

Both groups are held together in the prison, which is so overcrowded that some prisoners resort to sleeping in the toilets. Medical care is poor and food supplies so inadequate that many must rely upon family and friends on the outside to ensure they are properly fed.

But for a few, dance is offering the possibility of a second chance – a route to social reintegration, the skills that could stop them re-offending once they are released and even the support and acceptance of families who have, in some cases, rejected them.

In the process, these dancing prisoners become a family and learn that life does not necessarily stop at the prison gates.

Watch The Dancer Thieves: A Second Chance for Prisoners in Burkina Faso.

As a young man, Aguibou trained in France and his native Burkina Faso, eventually founding one of the largest dance festivals in West Africa. When his sick son died after striking doctors refused to treat him, dance played a key role in helping him to overcome the pain and anger he felt. Following that experience, he decided to share the therapeutic power of dance with the inmates of Bobo Dioulasso prison. "I do nothing but dance. It has given me everything," says Aguibou, who hopes it will do the same for the prisoners. [Jacob Bonkian Londry/Al Jazeera]

As a young man, Aguibou trained in France and his native Burkina Faso, eventually founding one of the largest dance festivals in West Africa. When his sick son died after striking doctors refused to treat him, dance played a key role in helping him to overcome the pain and anger he felt. Following that experience, he decided to share the therapeutic power of dance with the inmates of Bobo Dioulasso prison. “I do nothing but dance. It has given me everything,” says Aguibou, who hopes it will do the same for the prisoners. JACOB BONKIAN LONDRY/AL JAZEERA
Aguibou aims to teach the prisoners more than mere steps. He hopes they will learn to express their emotions and tell their stories, conveying some of their worst experiences, through the movement of their bodies. [Jacob Bonkian Londry/Al Jazeera]

Aguibou aims to teach the prisoners more than mere steps. He hopes they will learn to express their emotions and tell their stories, conveying some of their worst experiences, through the movement of their bodies. JACOB BONKIAN LONDRY/AL JAZEERA
There are roughly 700 prisoners in the Bobo Dioulasso prison and conditions are cramped and uncomfortable. [Jacob Bonkian Londry/Al Jazeera]

There are roughly 700 prisoners in the Bobo Dioulasso prison and conditions are cramped and uncomfortable. JACOB BONKIAN LONDRY/AL JAZEERA
Prisoners prepare their own food but supplies are limited and many must rely upon family and friends on the outside in order to eat properly. [Jacob Bonkian Londry/Al Jazeera]

Prisoners prepare their own food but supplies are limited and many must rely upon family and friends on the outside in order to eat properly. JACOB BONKIAN LONDRY/AL JAZEERA
The prison is trying to provide the prisoners with skills that will help them reintegrate into society and which will decrease the likelihood of them re-offending once they have served their sentences. Aguibou's dance lessons are part of this effort. [Jacob Bonkian Londry/Al Jazeera]

The prison is trying to provide the prisoners with skills that will help them reintegrate into society and which will decrease the likelihood of them re-offending once they have served their sentences. Aguibou’s dance lessons are part of this effort. JACOB BONKIAN LONDRY/AL JAZEERA
Many of the prisoners learn how to make bags they then sell to earn an income. [Jacob Bonkian Londry/Al Jazeera]

Many of the prisoners learn how to make bags they then sell to earn an income. JACOB BONKIAN LONDRY/AL JAZEERA
Left: Kassoum Songne, 30, was charged with possessing a stolen motorbike and sentenced to 48 months in prison. Only his mother knows that he is incarcerated and he has asked her not to tell the rest of his family, including his 14-year-old child. When he is released, he says he would like to become an artist. Right: Zinaba Mady used to work on gold panning sites. One day, he carried out an attempted burglary with a friend. His friend escaped but Zinaba was arrested at the scene and sentenced to six years in prison. He has two years left to serve. "Often, I get angry, not wanting to talk to anyone," he says. "But since I've been dancing, I do not live in that kind of feeling any more." [Jacob Bonkian Londry/Al Jazeera]

Left: Kassoum Songne, 30, was charged with possessing a stolen motorbike and sentenced to 48 months in prison. Only his mother knows that he is incarcerated and he has asked her not to tell the rest of his family, including his 14-year-old child. When he is released, he says he would like to become an artist. Right: Zinaba Mady used to work on gold panning sites. One day, he carried out an attempted burglary with a friend. His friend escaped but Zinaba was arrested at the scene and sentenced to six years in prison. He has two years left to serve. “Often, I get angry, not wanting to talk to anyone,” he says. “But since I’ve been dancing, I do not live in that kind of feeling any more.” JACOB BONKIAN LONDRY/AL JAZEERA
Left: Fousseni Traore is 18 years old. He was sentenced to five years in prison for robbery and burglary but says he is innocent. He says the dance classes are "the only time I forget my troubles and the worries of life in my cell". Right: Moussa Traore, 27, was charged with robbery and aggravated rape. He says he is not a good person but denies the charge and insists he was falsely accused by the real culprit. He has spent more than seven years in prison awaiting a trial. [Jacob Bonkian Londry/Al Jazeera]

Left: Fousseni Traore is 18 years old. He was sentenced to five years in prison for robbery and burglary but says he is innocent. He says the dance classes are “the only time I forget my troubles and the worries of life in my cell”. Right: Moussa Traore, 27, was charged with robbery and aggravated rape. He says he is not a good person but denies the charge and insists he was falsely accused by the real culprit. He has spent more than seven years in prison awaiting a trial. JACOB BONKIAN LONDRY/AL JAZEERA
Left: Abdoulaye Gansore, 25, was charged with raping a 14-year-old girl. The apprentice bricklayer has been in prison for three months, awaiting trial. "If I leave the prison, I intend to become a dancer," he explains. "I live a beautiful experience in the dance; I even forget that I am in prison." Right: Dramane Karambiri, 33, was sentenced to five years for embezzlement. He hopes to teach dance when he is released from prison. [Jacob Bonkian Londry/Al Jazeera]

Left: Abdoulaye Gansore, 25, was charged with raping a 14-year-old girl. The apprentice bricklayer has been in prison for three months, awaiting trial. “If I leave the prison, I intend to become a dancer,” he explains. “I live a beautiful experience in the dance; I even forget that I am in prison.” Right: Dramane Karambiri, 33, was sentenced to five years for embezzlement. He hopes to teach dance when he is released from prison. JACOB BONKIAN LONDRY/AL JAZEERA
Aguibou, who affectionately refers to the prisoners he teaches as "the dancer thieves", wants his students to understand that life does not necessarily have to stop for them when the prison's gates slam shut. He hopes they will become a family, supporting each other through the hardships of prison life and into a future where they do not re-offend. [Jacob Bonkian Londry/Al Jazeera]

Aguibou, who affectionately refers to the prisoners he teaches as “the dancer thieves”, wants his students to understand that life does not necessarily have to stop for them when the prison’s gates slam shut. He hopes they will become a family, supporting each other through the hardships of prison life and into a future where they do not re-offend.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA /JACOB BONKIAN LONDRY

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